The forgotten report

Slavery and Justice at Brown

By
Thursday, May 24, 2012

University Hall, the first building on Brown's campus, was partly built with slave labor.

 

In a storage warehouse about four miles from campus, nearly 1,000 copies of the Slavery and Justice report sit in boxes. But any attempt to acquire a hard copy of the report resembles a wild goose chase. Inquiries are directed through public relations, who are quick to reply that there are copies available to download online. Though about 150 are kept in the public relations office, further reports must be retrieved from the storage boxes, a drive away across the Providence River near manufacturing facilities and a food bank. Out of sight, invisible, essentially forgotten.

“We tend to have difficulty with these very fraught topics,” said President Ruth Simmons earlier this month as she sipped Orangina from a plastic cup. “But on a university campus, one would expect that that wouldn’t be such a powerful deterrent.”

In the spring of 2003, Simmons formed the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice to examine Brown’s historic ties to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. At the time, a call for restorative justice was gripping the country, and Simmons’ charge pushed the University to the forefront of the movement. In laying bare Brown’s connection to slavery, Simmons hoped to respond to the community’s concerns.

When the 17-member committee released its 85-page report more than three years later, it concluded with a series of recommendations. While some recommendations were lofty – including the creation of an institute with a full-time director to study slavery – they all reflected the fundamental idea that an institution’s relationship to slavery should not be swept under the rug. To that end, the committee hoped its report would be disseminated to students and discussed in classes. It recommended that Brown’s connection to slavery be taught during freshman orientation so even the University’s youngest students would be armed with knowledge of its past. 

But today, finding students on campus who have read the report is rare. There is no formal program to discuss the report during freshman orientation. Many faculty members are familiar with the report, but few teach it in their classes. Just this month, the University named Professor of Africana Studies Barrymore Bogues the director of the center for the study of slavery and justice. Though there are plans for a memorial, it does not yet exist. 

Last fall, Seth Rockman, an associate professor of history who was not on the steering committee but calls himself the “historian of this enterprise,” assigned the report to students in his first-year seminar, HIST 0970: “Slavery and Historical Memory in the United States.” He instructed them to read it in a public place and see if anyone reacted. His students came back the next week and said they had not met a single classmate who had heard of the report. None of them knew Brown was known for the report. None had chosen to attend Brown because of it. No student had enrolled in his class because they knew of Brown’s connections to slavery. 

“This is a living document,” said Evelyn Hu-Dehart, a professor of history who served on the steering committee. “But it’s dead.” 

The charge

On April 30, 2003, Simmons appointed a steering committee charged with helping “the campus and the nation come to a better understanding of the complicated, controversial questions surrounding the issue of reparations for slavery.” 

While many think Simmons was personally invested in forming a committee to examine Brown’s ties to slavery because she is black, she told The Herald earlier this month that this was never the case.

“This didn’t have anything to do with me,” she said. “Race kind of reared its ugly head because I happened to be African-American. But the reality was that I didn’t prompt this.”

At the time, there were class action lawsuits and threats of lawsuits against corporations, banks and academic institutions including Yale and Brown that were thought to have ties to slavery. 

Two years earlier, in March 2001, The Herald ignited a firestorm when it printed a full-page advertisement paid for by the conservative agitator David Horowitz with the headline “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea – and Racist Too.” Angry students stole copies of the newspaper, sparking a national debate over free speech. 

Though many colleges and universities founded before the Civil War were connected to slavery in some way, none had yet publicly acknowledged these ties. Here was an opportunity for the University to take the lead on restorative justice by encouraging knowledge. 

“If all this process becomes is us wringing our hands about the fact that in the past, some people acted badly, I think we should pack up our tent and go home,” said James Campbell, the committee’s chair and a former associate professor of American civilization, Africana studies and history, at a community forum in October 2004. “This is about making connections – not only being informed and reflective on the past, but applying that to the present.”

As the committee deliberated and researched, media outlets – including the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Guardian of London and USA Today – worked themselves into a frenzy. Articles incorrectly fixated on the issue of reparations and how much Brown would be willing to pay. The “Today Show” aired a segment pitting black and white students against each other. Though many alums praised the University’s endeavor, others threatened to stop giving money. “If Brown pays money for slave reparations, you will never see another penny of mine,” one alum wrote in a letter to the committee. The letter, along with other messages to the committee, was never published.

Recommendations

More than three years after its creation, the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice released its report October 2006.  The committee had painstakingly researched the University’s connection to slavery, placed slavery in the context of other historical injustices and attempted to untangle the question of reparations.

The committee discovered that more than 100,000 slaves arrived in the United States through Rhode Island. According to the report, more than half the slave-trading voyages launched from North America began in Rhode Island. 

More directly, the Brown family, which gave the University its name, owned slaves. Slaves helped construct University Hall, a symbol of Brown, in the 1770s. About 30 people who served on the Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, owned or captained slave ships, and many of the University’s early donors owned or traded slaves. 

But the report also gave the sense that Brown’s historical connection to slavery was not as dark as people thought, which, perhaps, was the point. “I thought one of the reasons the president wanted to do this wh
ole endeavor was a concern about misperceptions about our history,” said Ross Cheit, an associate professor of political science who served on the committee. “The story wasn’t as bad as some people thought it was going to be.” 

Simmons said last week that it didn’t matter what the story ultimately was. What does matter, she said, is that the University discovered its past and told its history.

The last pages of the report outlined a series of recommendations that the committee hoped would serve the ends of justice by keeping history alive. 

Some recommendations, like creating a center and memorializing the slave trade, would provide focal points for acknowledging the University’s history and fostering sustained inquiry. Other recommendations leveraged Brown’s status as a university to address the legacy of slavery.

The committee urged the University to use its resources to support public education in Rhode Island. It called for open acknowledgement of the role Brown’s founders and benefactors played in the institution of slavery and the slave trade. It recommended that the University “tell the truth in all its complexity” by distributing the report and sponsoring lecture series and public forums. 

“There is a responsibility to make some sort of amends,” said Seth Magaziner ’06, who served on the steering committee as an undergraduate. The committee wanted Brown to use its academic resources to promote interdisciplinary study of slavery, he said.

In bold print at the end of the report, the committee wrote its final recommendation: “Appoint a committee to monitor implementation of these recommendations.” 

“You hoped it would become part of the institutional DNA,” said Campbell, who left Brown in 2008 and is now a professor of history at Stanford. “It was remarkable what it meant to us and to the students and community who were here.”

In February 2007, the University issued its response to the report, which included initiatives that expanded on the committee’s recommendations. While the University supported many of the recommendations in print, its immediate efforts went to implementing tangible, perhaps less controversial, initiatives.  The University established the Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence that spring and the Urban Education Fellows program in fall 2008. But other recommendations seem to have slipped through the cracks.

Slow progress

Nearly everyone interviewed for this article pointed to the lack of a center as one of the reasons more recommendations have not yet come to fruition. Without a physical locus, it is difficult to keep the conversation going, they said. 

In its official response to the recommendations, the University wrote, “The president and provost will guide the process in such a way that it does not fall prey to the bureaucratic hurdles that can delay implementation.” 

Yet the center seems to have succumbed to the very hurdles the University was trying to avoid, Simmons said.

“The reason that the center did not get going in a timely way is plain old-fashioned bureaucracy,” she said.

Since the report was released, Simmons has not communicated with members of the steering committee, committee members said. Instead, she created two follow-up committees to address two parts of the University’s plan – the center and the memorial. 

Simmons said it was necessary to create these committees because the steering committee was “not an expert committee” on implementing their recommendations. They put forth the report as historians, political scientists, English professors and Africana studies professors, she said, and she wanted more focused committees to decide how to respond to the proposals.

But these committees may have hindered progress despite making strides on their charges, said many people involved with the initiative. The 10-member Commission on Memorials, which included members from the Brown community and people nominated by the mayor of Providence and the governor of Rhode Island, took nearly two years to issue six recommendations. One of these recommendations was to pass many decisions about the memorial – including the memorial’s location and designer – on to Brown’s Public Arts Commission. Though a nine-member committee chaired by Professor of Economics Glenn Loury laid the groundwork for an academic center, internal disagreement among its members delayed its recommendations for a course of action, they said.

“I don’t think in my entire experience, I have ever seen anything quite like it,” Simmons said of the time Loury’s committee took to release recommendations. 

The formation of follow-up committees may have slowed some projects, but there were other factors. The financial crisis in 2008 sheared nearly $800 million from the University budget, forcing priorities to shift.

“Brown probably would have been much more generous and capable of doing more of the recommendations if there were more money around,” Hu-Dehart said. 

To date, there have been no efforts to start an endowment for the institution. It’s hard to raise an endowment during the best economic times, and nearly impossible when it is unclear what such an endowment will support, Simmons said. “No donor is going to want to fund a center if they don’t know what it’s going to be,” she said. “Hopefully, as it gets started and there’s more flesh, we’ll be able to attract people who are interested in funding it.”

But without an endowment, the center held little appeal.

“You’re offering someone directorship of the center, the attractiveness of that is usually connected to center resources,” Cheit said. “To have letterhead but not a budget is not that attractive.”

Since 2010, the University has extended offers for the center’s directorship to two people outside the University and at least two internal candidate, with disappointing results. Marcus Rediker, a professor at the University of Pittsburg, accepted the offer in March 2010 before declining it less than two weeks later for personal reasons.

In fall 2011, the University formally asked Walter Johnson, professor of history at Harvard, to lead the center. He declined. In December, another offer went out to a Brown professor, but he also turned down the University for a position elsewhere. People familiar with the search say the difficulty of finding positions for candidates’ spouses played a role in the delays. Now that Bogues has accepted the directorship of the center, there is hope that interest in the report and its recommendations will be reinvigorated.

“Things happen really slowly at universities,” Campbell said. B
ut, he added, “This is probably longer than one would have expected or hoped.”

The invisible report

Though the center’s creation has been delayed by many factors beyond the University’s control, other initiatives simply have not been carried out. There is no formal discussion of the report during freshman orientation. The University proposed honoring the legacy of slavery on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but few students are on campus during the holiday, which falls over winter break. 

Katherine Bergeron, the dean of the College, said that while there were all-class meetings during freshman orientation devoted to the Slavery and Justice report in the first few years after its publication, the meeting has since evolved into a broader discussion about diversity.

“I would still say that the orientation program, the idea, is alive and well,” Bergeron said. “You don’t want to create something that doesn’t have the chance to grow and breathe.” 

While the report is available online, Bergeron admitted it is “hard to find.”

There is the sense among those involved that implementation of recommendations has not been as important as the report itself. Perhaps, they say, slavery is a difficult topic to discuss, and the University shied away from some initiatives out of fear of negative backlash. Others say this was not the case. “President Simmons was very much in favor of producing bold recommendations,” Magaziner said. “She never encouraged us to water it down.” 

Simmons denied that the difficult subject matter played a factor at all, and she offered her own reason for the report’s obscurity. “I think length had a lot to do with it,” she said. “It’s just difficult to plow through the report if you don’t have a good bit of time.”

A dying document

The University is quick to praise the initiatives it has implemented, like the Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence, the Urban Education Fellows program and its announcement in February that a designer had been chosen for the memorial. But these are some of the only concrete elements that have come out of the report in six years. Steering committee members and others interviewed say part of the problem is that the University never created the oversight committee specified at the end of the report’s recommendations. 

“No one was paying attention,” Rockman said. “And that had severe consequences.”

In its response, the University addressed the committee’s call for an oversight committee, writing, “The University created the Brown University Community Council as a vehicle for the monitoring and implementation of programs of wide community interest. That body has reviewed the ongoing work of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice and is a suitable body to continue monitoring progress on recommendations.”

But since the University’s response was published, the BUCC has discussed the Slavery and Justice recommendations just twice, according to its minutes – on March 13, 2007 when Simmons briefed the council on the University’s response, and on March 17, 2009, when then-Provost David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98 reviewed the progress of the plan outlined in the University’s response. 

“What would they have discussed?” Simmons asked. “I think once the projects got started and they were actually underway, there’s very little that any committee actually could have done.”

Campbell, who chaired the steering committee and became the public face of the Slavery and Justice initiative, left the University in 2008 for a position at Stanford. What, steering committee members wonder, would have happened if he had stayed?

What has been done?

Even if more can be done, the University has still implemented some significant recommendations. The Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence, for example, has raised $1.5 million. Though the University committed to raising $10 million for the fund in 2007, it deems the initiative a success. 

The Urban Education Fellows program, which began in fall 2008, gives graduate students studying education the opportunity to teach in Providence in exchange for tuition. 

The John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage offers a Fellowship for the Public Study of Slavery. The fellowship, which was funded through the President’s office and is now funded by the Provost’s office, covers full tuition for two graduate students each year and provides each with a $19,000 stipend.

In 2009, the University asked Jane Lancaster PhD’98, the University historian, to rewrite Brown’s history and include its ties to slavery. The Debra L. Lee Lecture on Slavery and Justice had its first speaker in 2010. In April 2011, Brown and Harvard co-sponsored a conference called “Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development.”

This past February, the University announced it had selected the artist Martin Puryear to design a memorial. It should be up on the Quiet Green by 2014, in time for the University’s 250th anniversary.

“I think a physical thing makes a difference,” said Steven Lubar, the director of the John Nicholas Brown Center and a member of both the Committee on Memorials and the Public Arts Committee. “My hope is that it’s a way of bringing the whole thing back to life.”

And now that a director has been selected, there is hope that interest in the report and its recommendations will be reinvigorated through the center he will create.

Brown’s efforts have also inspired other universities to examine their pasts, including Emory University, the College of William and Mary, the University of South Carolina and recently, Harvard and Princeton.

But while the report has impacted colleges and universities nationally, it is still largely absent from life on campus.

“I thought the community would be very interested in it, and that it wouldn’t get any notice outside,” Simmons said. “And it’s been exactly the reverse.”

  • Elizabeth Regan

    Although granting monetary support to public education is a thoughtful gesture to emerge from a reflection on past participation in a now-reformed slavery-enhanced economy, there is still slavery in the world today. Just as local slavery past is at arm’s length thanks to time, contemporary human trafficking is at arm’s length due to location and/or social class. I am unrelated to the Brown community but read this article hoping to find a more dynamic and current synthesis of profiteering and reparation, both back then and right now.